Marsden key to Red Rocks’ success (4/22)

By By Jon Gilbert

By Jon Gilbert

Click here for our complete coverage of the 2008 NCAA National Championshps

If traveling in the southeast region of the United States, a collegiate women’s gymnastics fan could keep plenty busy with the rich gymnastics tradition that surrounds them. Reigning national champion Georgia is boxed in by Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Auburn and several other elite programs.

Travel north to Big Ten country, and it’s easy to stumble upon Ohio State, Minnesota or Michigan — all powers.

Don’t forget the West Coast. UCLA, Stanford and Washington highlight yet another stout region of gymnastics competition.

But in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains lies the most potent program of all: Utah. The Red Rocks claim a record 10 national championships and are the only team to qualify for all 27 national championships. So how did such a gargantuan program sprout up hundreds of miles away from any other powerhouse?

Creating a dynasty

“It all goes back to Greg (Marsden) and what he did early on,” Utah assistant coach Jeff Graba said.

Marsden, Utah’s head coach, is in his 33rd year at the helm and is the mastermind behind every championship banner that hangs in the Dumke Gymnastics Center.

A competitive diver in college, Marsden delved into gymnastics on the side to help him on the diving board. As a graduate assistant at Arkansas State, he found out that a teaching assistant position had opened up at Utah. He moved to Utah and got the job. Among his duties was teaching a gymnastics activities class. When Title IX was passed in 1972 to make athletic scholarships available to women, Utah needed women’s varsity sports. Utah had the equipment and a coach in Marsden to begin a gymnastics team.

It didn’t take long for Marsden to get the program rolling-but he didn’t limit his influence to just Utah. Marsden is widely considered one of the greatest influences on the entire sport.

“I think that the structure that he’s created as far as his own team and the influence on the sport as a whole?goes back to his organization and foresight,” Graba said. “He’s always thinking, ‘Where are wegoing to be five years from now as a sport?’ He’s looking that far ahead all the time and really trying to break down to the minutest detail what he can do to get there.”

Much of gymnastics’ popular strategies and competition formats have Marsden’s fingerprints all over them.

Former Utah State coach and Florida head coach Ernestine Russell once told Graba he would be learning from the “guy who created it all” when Graba arrived as assistant coach three years ago.

“Since I’ve been here, I believe she’s right,” Graba said.

Challenges aplenty

Getting his program where it is today wasn’t easy at all. Marsden and Utah face some challenges foreign to other programs in different regions of the country. With the wealth of gymnastics tradition and talent on the East Coast, recruiting is difficult for a team seemingly stranded along the Wasatch front. Marsden said recruits often view Utah as distant and unknown, making it an unattractive destination.

“Most of the kids we recruit have to come a long way to join us,” Marsden said. “Once we get them here and they see this place, we usually go way up on people’s lists.”

Katie Kivisto, a Florida native, picked Utah despite living in the depths of the tradition-rich Southeastern Conference.

Although she knew she wanted to get away from home for a new experience, she said Utah didn’t appeal to her all that much at first.

“Before I came out here, I just wasn’t familiar with Utah,” Kivisto said. “I thought it was kind of a slower-paced life than it is. I don’t think before I came I was really considering it as much.”

Utah’s main competitor in obtaining Kivisto was Stanford. The northern California program has one distinct advantage over Utah in the recruiting battle: Stanford is a member of the Pacific 10 Conference. Utah does not affiliate with a conference, eliminating any chances of landing conference championship honors.

Early on in his career, Marsden found this to be a greater disadvantage, but he has found ways to combat it.

“I tried to turn what appeared to be a negative into a positive,” Marsden said.

With no ties to conference meets, Utah can travel around the country and “cherry pick” the top competition available. Marsden uses Utah’s opportunity to compete against the best to lure top athletes.

Plenty left to do

Despite being the only gymnastics coach with more than 800 career wins, having won seven national coach-of-the-year awards and writing most of the coaching record books, Marsden doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon. Although he is more concerned with molding his athletes into successful people, winning championships has not lost its allure.

“Of course I’d like to win one more, two more, three more, as many as we can,” Marsden said. “But I try to look at what we’ve accomplished and not at what we haven’t.”

Graba believes that Marsden will stick around for a while for the sport itself as much as for his program.

Whenever Marsden does retire, the championships, attendance records and pressure will be handed to someone new.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for whoever comes here because he’s built such a great program,” Graba said. “But there’s a bit of a burden in that you are following such a great history.”

“If the right person’s in charge, it might even get better.”

Both Marsden and Graba believe strongly that the program has staying power once Marsden is no longer there to fuel it.

For now, Ute fans have the privilege of watching one of the best at work, and Graba has the privilege to learn from the “master.”

“I’m just trying to immerse myself in the atmosphere and figure things out,” Graba said. “Not many people get the opportunity that I have.”

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Tyler Cobb

Utah head coach Greg Marsden took the Red Rocks from a run-of-the-mill gymnastics program to one of the nation’s elite, leading the team to a record 10 national championships.